Magical Hack – Future Sight

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Friday, March 7th – While we could very easily focus upon Extended coming up on a week or so until Grand Prix: Philadelphia, I fear the benefits of a further analysis of the field and brainstorming up decklists isn’t the hot-button topic of the week for tournament play. Rather than focus on the now of Extended… or worse yet, continue the stream of Goblin-centric articles… I find it very interesting to look into the changes to Extended set rotation and how they will affect us for the immediate future.

While we could very easily focus upon Extended coming up on a week or so until Grand Prix: Philadelphia, I fear the benefits of a further analysis of the field and brainstorming up decklists isn’t the hot-button topic of the week for tournament play. Rather than focus on the now of Extended… or worse yet, continue the stream of Goblin-centric articles… I find it very interesting to look into the changes to Extended set rotation and how they will affect us for the immediate future. Knowing full-well that Onslaught Block was destined to go away at the end of this year, around this time last year I was proposing the theory that Future Sight would contain the “enemy-color” fetchlands so that we could still at least have some access to the good mana that defines Extended with both Onslaught and Ravnica Block. After all… wouldn’t everyone want to hold onto that positive interaction for as long as possible?

And then we saw rather an interesting change to the Extended rotation policy:

“The scheduled October 2008 rotation of the Extended format, as listed in the Magic Floor Rules, has changed. Following the release of the set codenamed “Rock”, the following sets will be leaving the Extended format: Invasion, Planeshift, Apocalypse, Odyssey, Torment, Judgment, and Seventh Edition. The rotation previously listed in the floor rules also included Onslaught, Legions, and Scourge. These three sets are now scheduled to leave Extended in 2009. One years’ worth of blocks will leave Extended with every fall Magic release, syncing up Extended rotation with Standard rotation.”

First things first, it means that the future upcoming Extended format will get to hold onto its fetchlands to go with its dual lands for at least another year, at which point I suspect we will be looking with a curious eye to see whether Polluted Delta and friends are re-printed in the next Core Set (… It goes to eleven!) or you see a functional replacement such as the oft-theorized enemy Fetchland cycle that, to be honest, would effectively serve as the exact same cards for 90% of all decks… and make Rock decks smile with glee. But it also means we will get to see a lot more hanging around, too… and that includes of course Goblin Warchief and friends. (Though not that ‘Ringleader’ guy, so it’s not like nothing changes.) Second, it also initiates an annual cycling-out of cards from Extended, making it similar in character to a really, really big Standard card-pool: each year something goes in and something comes out. You just happen to get to keep everything for a good long time… seven years by the looks of it, since we will get to keep Onslaught, Mirrodin, Champions of Kamigawa, Ravnica, Time Spiral, Lorwyn, and “Rock” all at the same time and won’t actually lose Onslaught until the standalone following “Rock”. This helps to make the playable formats a bit easier to understand for new players… which I imagine is a Very Big Thing (TM) with the new focus on acquiring players and making Magic “mainstream” enough that literally anybody could feel it was something they could try out just for fun.

And the rotation policy makes some pretty good sense. Admittedly the timing of it doesn’t necessarily make great sense… seven years is almost an awkward number, sounding arbitrarily chosen as if it were the most time the powers that be would let a set into a popularly-played format before aging it out because it’s gotten too hard to get. It almost sounds bad in a superstitious way… if they print something stupidly good like Affinity again, we’ll have seven years of bad luck because of it. Five years would at least have the illusion of making sense as a chosen length of time… but at the end of the day any number would have some element of randomness to it, and getting to play with your cards for an additional five years after they phase out of Standard should help show that cards maintain their value over time, which is good for prospective new customers.

So we can more or less understand the why: the currently-existing rotation schedule was a little too nebulous to be effective at what it was intended to do. As a vehicle to drive sales, an easy-to-understand repeating schedule is better for consumer confidence, and the existing schedule where things piled up and one set would get eight years while another got six years in Extended would actually be counter-productive. But to jump into the actual changes we’ll see as cards leave Extended, let’s look at the following:

Invasion: Ancient Spring, Archeological Dig, Geothermal Crevice, Irrigation Ditch, Sulfur Vent, Tinder Farm, Stormscape Apprentice, Galina’s Knight, Collective Restraint, Fires of Yavimaya, Armadillo Cloak, Artifact Mutation, Dismantling Blow, Fact or Fiction, Tsabo’s Decree, Wax/Wane, Global Ruin, Lobotomy.

For the most part we lose very little here. Other than some obscure Wish targets like Dismantling Blow, we lose the sac-lands that have fueled combo strategies of various stripes for a few years now, Armadillo Cloak (whose milkshake does, in fact, bring the boys to the yard — watch its considerable comeback in recent weeks!), and the previously-omnipresent, recently-overshadowed Fact or Fiction. FoF has generally fought with Gifts Ungiven for space in decks, or been overshadowed by the cheaper Thirst for Knowledge, and thus losing it will actually have minimal effect… so really, we lose a set of lands that the format is healthier without, and that is the lasting effect of Invasion’s impending absence.

Planeshift: Draco, Cavern Harpy, Meddling Mage, Flametongue Kavu, Destructive Flow, Dralnu’s Crusade, Eladamri’s Call, Orim’s Chant, Rith’s Charm, Terminate, Hull Breach

Here the main casualties are more considerable — Meddling Mage has been an Extended staple for his entire lifetime, while Destructive Flow has been a format-defining enchantment for the past few years that will go without a replacement, perhaps putting the last of the incidental mana-denial strategies fully to rest. Terminate slinks away just as people were starting to find it again, overshadowed as it has been in recent years by the easier-to-cast Smother being equally as effective in most cases. And Orim’s Chant will cease to be the best thing you can stick on an Isochron Scepter, most likely invalidating that strategy entirely… and for the rest we lose some cards that show up as also-rans or Wish targets, in decks that are for the most part wholly disassembled due to other (larger) pieces rotating out.

… And Rith’s Charm. We shall have to pry it from Michael J. Flores’s cold dead hands.

Apocalypse: Spiritmonger, Spectral Lynx, Sylvan Messenger, Goblin Ringleader, Goblin Legionnaire, Pernicious Deed, Orim’s Thunder, Fire/Ice, Gerrard’s Verdict, Vindicate, Life/Death

We lose four common staples of the format and a lot of other things that just happen to find a home from time to time. The loss of Goblin Ringleader will drastically change the tenor of Goblin decks, so even though we get to hold on to Warchief and friends for another year, we still lose the part that gave the Goblin deck its powerful card-drawing, leaving it a one-dimensional beatdown deck instead of the complex combo-beatdown deck it currently is. Vindicate leaving the format ultimately hurts beatdown decks, as those were the strategies most likely to employ it, while Pernicious Deed takes away the mass-removal spell of choice of mid-range Rock-style decks for years and years. And then we also lose Fire/Ice, one of the most versatile burn spells of all time for its rich combination of size, speed, and ultimately also the ability to ‘cycle’ it when it was not actually useful. You also will need to pry Gerrard’s Verdict from Flores’ cold dead hands, that or convince him somehow to try Noggin Whack… and he will complain that he can’t Whack himself to gain six life. What a whiner.

Odyssey: All five Eggs; Psychatog; Wild Mongrel; Werebear; Tireless Tribe; Nimble Mongoose; Patron Wizard; Terravore; Sphere of Law; Standstill; Zombie Infestation; Tattoo Ward; Coffin Purge; Ghastly Demise; Moment’s Peace; Tainted Pact; Barbarian Ring; Cephalid Coliseum; Darkwater Catacombs; Nomad Stadium; Petrified Field; Skycloud Expanse; Tarnished Citadel; Braids, Cabal Minion; Balancing Act; Buried Alive; Careful Study; Firebolt; Haunting Echoes; Innocent Blood; Reckless Charge; Roar of the Wurm; Upheaval

Here we see quite a lot changes. The loss of Terravore ultimately defeats every deck that has ever used him or ever would, gutting the Life from the Loam decks and ‘forcing’ them to rely on his new brother-in-arms Countryside Crusher if they want something comparable to what ultimately proved to be the best Lhurgoyf variant of the five. But with the loss of Odyssey you lose a lot of the graveyard-centric themes that have been powerful in the format, from the Threshold guys that haven’t seen play since Tarmogoyf came around to simple things like Firebolt and Moment’s Peace that have been Extended staples of excellent decks for some time now. Careful Study, Tireless Tribe, and Zombie Infestation all disappear, taking Cephalid Coliseum with them, neutering the Dredge-based “combo” strategies by taking away their discard outlets time and time again, as you’ll see when we get to the next sets… and we also lose some interesting also-rans like the Blue-sharing “Signet” lands (run in Tron decks), and things like the Eggs (remember the Second Sunrise deck!?!) and Balancing Act (not seen recently, but it did show up at the start of the season…).

Of all the things leaving, I suspect it is Odyssey’s disappearance that will have the biggest effect, even if Psychatog had been largely displaced by Tarmogoyf at present.

Torment: Cephalid Illusionist, Aquamoeba, Ichorid, Grim Lavamancer, Nantuko Shade, Basking Rootwalla, Mesmeric Fiend, Arrogant Wurm, Putrid Imp, Circular Logic, Insidious Dreams, Cabal Coffers, Breakthrough, Chainer’s Edict, Crippling Fatigue, Deep Analysis, Devastating Dreams, Morningtide, Nostalgic Dreams, Sickening Dreams

Here we see another rich swath of cards disappearing — from Burning Wish targets to alternate-Tron-component Cabal Coffers, and tournament staples of the recent era like Cephalid Illusionist, Putrid Imp, Breakthrough, and Devastating Dreams. But then I guess losing Burning Wish targets doesn’t matter so much, when that particular Wish itself is also on the way out… we just lose entire strategies right here, and some of the best cards in the format.

Judgment: Phantom Centaur, Fledgling Dragon, Hapless Researcher, Anger, Genesis, Wonder, Sutured Ghoul, Solitary Confinement, Cunning Wish, Flaring Pain, Lava Dart, Mental Note, Ray of Revelation, Riftstone Portal, Burning Wish, Cabal Therapy, Living Wish, Stitch Together

And here we just lose… Living Wish, Burning Wish, Cunning Wish, and Cabal Therapy, plus Solitary Confinement to make the Epic decks ‘play fair’ even after you take away their Invasion sac-lands. Many of the cards we see here haven’t had any impact lately — like Stitch Together or Hapless Researcher, both previously components of Reanimator-based decks — but the variety of tools being pulled away show off just how much we’ve come to rely on these components in modern Extended. Many a deck uses one Wish or another, after all, and plenty of decks in their day have leaned on Genesis, or done unfair things with Sutured Ghoul, or won the beatdown mirror with Phantom Centaurs or Fledgling Dragons.

As a whole, the Odyssey block is chock full of the tournament staples we’re used to seeing rise to the top… just good things like Firebolt and Grim Lavamancer, with plenty of high-impact cards thanks to the power of the Flashback mechanic when priced reasonably. While we can (and I’m sure will) still be able to play good decks in Extended after the rotation, I am certain they will look nothing like they do right now.

Seventh Edition: Static Orb, Longbow Archer, Goblin Matron, Arcane Laboratory, Compost, Engineered Plague, Opposition, Counterspell, Final Fortune, Force Spike, Corrupt, Duress, Pillage

Here we see the last little bits go away… Counterspell and Force Spike fading back away from the format, which will have a monumental impact on Blue decks of many a stripe, especially since Force Spike is literally irreplaceable in its role of stopping aggressive decks in the early game [Mana Tithe in U/W? — Craig]. Spell Snare is very high quality, but it will never once in its lifetime ever counter a one-drop. Alongside those Blue cards we also lose Arcane Laboratory, a sideboard hoser of choice across a variety of seasons, but we do maintain a functional replacement in Rule of Law. However, for Blue cards that matter, Opposition disappears… taking away whole strategies of Blue decks, like the Green-Blue critter decks with Beacon of Creation and Spectral Force that had several reasonable showings last season. But to change the format even more, in addition to taking away Counterspell and Force Spike from every Blue deck in the format…

1. Goblin Matron completes the guttering of the Goblin deck, alongside Goblin Ringleader, taking away the often-redundant ability to smooth its draws and overpower the opponent consistently;

2. Duress, leaving alongside Cabal Therapy, leaves the role of ‘discard spell’ entirely to its inheritor, Thoughtseize… which will ultimately require players to strongly reconsider their manabases to include many varieties of basic Swamp, to avoid the Delta-Tomb-Thoughtseize turn 1 play of ‘sending oneself to fifteen life on the first turn’; and

3. Engineered Plague disappears from the format, to the relief of Goblins, Wizards, Elves, and Merfolk everywhere.

Taken as a whole… we get a very different Extended format even before we factor in the inclusion of the Shadowmoor mini-block and the “Rock” standalone expansion, as all of the tools we have come to rely on are pulled out from under us. And that’s not a “bad thing” no matter how much Extended might remind you of just a really big ‘Standard’ format. That is, after all, a good thing: if the plan is to make the game more easily accessible to new players, by removing some of the incoherent and often archaic rules by which things happen, and guaranteeing cards will retain their value for X years all at the same time, I can’t see how that is a bad thing. Add to that the fact that Extended will be its own beast for a considerable length of time, always very different and divergent from whatever is happening in Standard at the moment, and you’re guaranteed that ‘just’ altering the rotation schedule to ‘feel’ more like Standard’s schedule of rotations simplifies things for players new and old alike.

It also ensures that we will always see a dynamic shift of decks from year to year in Extended, as one set leaves and another set comes in, scheduling us to lose Onslaught block for good in 2009, then Mirrodin Block (and with it the Affinity deck, as well as Vedalken Shackles, for those watching and waiting for that particular change) the following year and so on and so forth. And a dynamically-shifting format is one where players get to explore, year after year, rather than just pick up where they left off from the year before and assume that their decks from the year before will still be legal or even good as the entire frame of the metagame shifts around the recent inclusions and sudden vacancies. No longer can you just build Affinity and run with it after quickly scanning to see if any new, cheap artifacts suit the deck… or perhaps cleverly thinking ‘So what if I cast Fatal Frenzy…?’. No longer can you rest on your laurels with the year’s prior winner, as if you ever could… because a year is a very long time when four sets come in and four sets go out.

And ultimately, leaving just the look at November 2008 Extended alone and jumping further into the future than that, we can perhaps glean a look at where things start to make a bit more sense. “Required Reading” for that would be this past Monday’s column by Mark Rosewater, Assuming the Acquisition. The ultimate focus of Wizards’ new direction is to greatly increase the accessibility of Magic to the mainstream, to grow its audience from a small but dedicated niche (us) to the wider world at large (everyone else). In the grander scheme of things we lose the cycle of building stagnation and massive format changes every few years that has been endemic to Extended from its origins, back in the day when they decided to rotate Revised out of Extended but keep the ten dual lands. Extended has always been a large format… and it still remains such, with seven years of standalones plus three or so Core Sets there as well. Extended has always been a format where the very best of cards battle it out, with the lowest mana-cost or the greatest cumulative effect (to Flores, “linears”) winning on ties… and it will still remain such, though every year a block’s worth of “linears” will fade out as we say good-bye first to Goblins and the rest of the Onslaught tribe, then the Affinity “linear,” et cetera et cetera ad infinitum.

Instead of something hard to understand, and where card access can keep you as king of the hill for years at a time, we get a format with clear and simple rules (‘it’s like Standard, only bigger!’) and constant change shaking things up, perhaps even moreso than in Standard itself where a much wider subset of cards continually interact in unexpected fashions and toss off new, creative mutations on a somewhat regular basis. Obviously for a new player it is harder to break into Extended than it is into Standard… but clear rules and consistent rotation keeps things fresh and interesting, in a way that isn’t really expressed in the more commonly played Standard environment. Looking towards the future instead of complaining about the sudden difference of the now, the decision makes perfect sense and ushers in a time where things make perfect sense and follow a consistent rhythm, where previously Extended was the oddball that changed in fits and gasps and didn’t make a lot of sense where the identity of each and every other format was well-defined and followed those rules consistently at all times.

If the goal is to improve accessibility and engage the curiosity, both of new players and of old, the change seems to be a good one. But there is a lot more to do, as you’ll note with other features such as the recent re-release to our public scrutiny of some of the Magic ads to have come before. Ultimately for Magic to break into the mainstream it has to earn popular appeal… or, barring that, at least popular acceptance. To do that we have to shake off the image that it is somehow socially unacceptable… because so long as we yield that particular battleground, that reputation we seem to languish in is all too well-deserved. This past week alone, you could say we lost the “counter-culture” warfare aspect of the game’s social acceptability in the public eye, as you might see if you click and watch this thankfully-short YouTube video that collects pieces from this Monday’s “The Tyra Banks Show” from an episode named “Stuck In A Single Rut.”

To recount, the experiment for the show was as follows: Take a very pretty (and ultimately, by the look of things, a little bit shallow) girl and trap her in speed-dates with “the gamer folk.” Date number one is with one of the most eccentric gamers I know… a guy by the name of Mark Alpert whose love of all things Cthulhionic is deep and abiding. Now, Mark doesn’t play Magic… but the stigma of “being a gamer” is deep enough that it is expected to be all that needs to be said when they set the stage for this segment, that ‘these people’ are the social misfits and rejects that they are being set up as in unfairly-edited short blurbs. Mark likes to play Vampire and happened to be there that Monday night for the Vampire: the Eternal Struggle game he and Date #2, Sean Stanley, had planned for the evening with three other friends from their little meet-up group. And both get picked on… not that Mark helps by offering to take his HeroClix along on a date, and Sean somehow gets picked on for not being the totally unrealistic and rather demeaning stereotype of the Australian surfer-dude.

Date #3 is local gamer Tim Gillam. Tim is the first Magic player they show, and about the last Magic player I would want to put forward on national television to represent my peoples… no offense to Tim, but as the least photogenic of the five (six if you count also-ran Pedro, who didn’t even get a ‘speed date’ segment on the clip) and the most standoffish, with lines like “maybe you should get out more” to the pretty dancer-girl who designs clothes in her free time. I’d rather not have this be the thing adding to the overall social stigma rather than deflating it. Date #4 is DraftCap programmer and sometimes-Star City Games columnist Mark Schmit, who happened to be the first ‘nice and normal-seeming’ guy but didn’t have the luck of being the somewhat more theatrically-inclined roleplayer (and only one of the bunch I didn’t know, Date #5 a.k.a. “Aaron”). Mark went to the staging at Neutral Ground and then later the taping in good faith, only to not do anything besides stand up in a line with the other ‘not good enough’ folk and have a thirty-second segment showing off on national television that he is generally a nice guy but that he somehow did not overcome “the gamer stigmata.”

Think of it what you will, that everything is fine and dandy and we can just do as we have always done and be happy with it: this is the face of the enemy, that which does not accept us for what we are and that which bars our way from social acceptance. It is the same creature that once bullied us on the playground, put gum in our hair, threw our books on the floor in study hall, and stole our lunch money. It is the pervasive belief that somehow we are doing something wrong, and it exists everywhere we do not fight it for the simple right to do as we have chosen and be accepted for it… and to some degree, as part of that greater whole, each and every one of us whether we signed on for that role or not is an ambassador of the game in our daily lives. Whenever you feel embarrassed by what you do for fun and entertainment… that embarrassment spreads to those around you, whether you mean for it to or not: that which you accept as shameful, others see as shameful. That’s the trick of it, in total: Wizards is declaring long-term war on the concept that what we do for fun is socially unacceptable.

To the victor goes the spoils. After all, what they do for the benefit of the game to advance its image in the public eye and gain mass appeal for the intellectual sport we merrily challenge each other to across dingy tables in battered rooms across the world… advances the quality of our life as one who enjoys that hobby, turning it from an experience which some people see as shameful or degrading and placing it on the same pedestal of any other hobby or pastime that has gained public support. What’s the difference, really, between what we do and a video game… not enough, surely, that a rousing game of Rock Band can be “the next cool thing to do” and you can’t even admit to your closest friends, “I’m going to play Friday Night Magic…”

For my part, I’m just sad I didn’t get to follow up on a bit of intelligence… because I had heard that this was happening, but found myself too sick after a long weekend of traveling to act on it and intervene in the vain hope that as one of the better-socialized gamers in our little circle that I might be able to help spin things in a better light. The role of ‘ambassador’ is one we may find thrust upon us in unusual fashion if we choose it… and for the good of the game, looking forward in coming months and years as Wizards of the Coast tries its darnedest to drag us out of the shadow of “So, that’s like Pokemon, right?” to earn mainstream acceptance and become something that is known within the public awareness of things.

Just don’t teach Paris Hilton how to play. For the love of all that is holy, just don’t.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com